Drug Law Reform: Lessons from the New Zealand Experience
In 2007, the Government of New Zealand entrusted an independent agency, the National Law Commission, to review the country’s drug law. The Commission will present a final report which is likely to feature a new approach to personal possession and use of drugs placing less emphasis on conviction and punishment and more on the delivery of effective treatment. New Zealand’s approach to drug law reform may provide lessons for other countries.
Over a hundred years ago, New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote. In the mid 1980s, it enacted bold anti-nuclear legislation, decriminalised homosexuality and established needle exchange and opioid substitution programmes for intravenous drug users. Yet sadly, its drug laws have remained frozen in a 1970s paradigm. It is time for these to be dragged into the 21st century to better support and enhance drug policy.
As a small and geographically isolated country on the periphery of the world, New Zealand’s review of its drug laws represents an opportunity for it to once again join the ranks of progressive countries in terms of innovative, fair and effective social legislation.
Drug law reform is a socially divisive issue but the approach that New Zealand is taking may offer some useful lessons for other countries. Tasking an independent and well respected entity to research the issues and formulate a series of recommendations for the Government to consider may partially depoliticise the issue.
While it is still premature to ascertain the extent to which actual drug law change will occur, the Law Commission’s comprehensive issues paper and final report is likely to serve as a blueprint for drug law reform in New Zealand for the next few years. Many of its recommendations will also be applicable to other countries attempting to steer a balance between enacting progressive drug law reform while complying with their international treaty obligations.
Even within the framework provided by the existing UN conventions, the Law Commission concludes that there is significant scope to put in place a more effective regulatory approach for personal drug use. A key aspect of this is to provide greater opportunity to direct people who use drugs away from the criminal justice system and into education, assessment and treatment.
Despite the excellent work done by the Law Commission, there is no guarantee that any of its final recommendations will be adopted by the Government. If New Zealand is to achieve progressive drug law reform, it will require its politicians to be guided by the best available evidence, not by populist sentiment. In this regard, civil society, NGOs and the media have an integral role to play in ensuring that debate relating to drug law reform remains balanced and grounded firmly on the evidence.
Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 8